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The Sound of Silence

Hello Troubadourians! With proper respects to Paul Simon, this month I’d like to talk about what you don’t play. Most of us obsess over what we do play. The chords, notes, rhythms, every sound we make with our instruments becomes fodder for analysis and critique. As a result, do we judge our music too harshly? Probably. But that is often a self-defense reaction. If we criticize ourselves first it stings less when others criticize our playing. All of our efforts are devoted to making every sound that emanates from our instruments the best sounds we are capable of making. But that’s only half of the challenge. And some would argue that it’s not even half. We’ve all heard that “less is more” and other old musician’s tales like that, but there is an important truth behind all of it; without silence, we couldn’t hear anything. Dwell on that for a moment or two. Just as the spaces between the words in this column define each one as an individual entity, it’s the spaces between sounds that give them their distinction. How we choose to “play” these spaces is often the difference between a mediocre performance and one that it transcendent.

When we speak, we use words to express our ideas, needs, emotions, humor, and just about any other form of human communication that can be imagined. Some of us are gifted with the ability to clearly communicate in the highest form of the language while others are only able to struggle with the simplest vernacular. The words, whether spoken or written, are essential to our message. But what if we are using those words to communicate with another person who is unfamiliar with our language? The first thing that most of us do is to begin speaking slowly in the hope that the spaces between our words will assist to clarify our intended communication. While this reaction is only rarely successful, it serves to illustrate that clarity of message is instinctual and that on some unconscious level we all realize that the spaces – the silence – will give clarity to our words. Listen to the gifted orators of our time and you will “hear” their message even if you can’t understand their language. They know how to use the space between their words to add emphasis to the content. Indeed, they also use vocal dynamics effectively but it is the silence that gives weight to the dynamic. Think about how a talented comedian consistently makes us laugh even when they’re telling jokes that we’ve heard many times before. Now, think about your friend telling the same joke and having it fall completely flat. What’s the difference? The comedian understands timing and uses the spaces between words to build anticipation toward the punchline. So, too, does a good musician use the spaces between notes to build a solo.

Music is the universal language. I don’t have to understand a musician’s spoken language to understand the music that they play. But just the same, I depend upon the spaces to discern the music they’re making. The most basic of spaces is the space between beats of our own hearts. The diastolic and systolic rhythm is the basis for practically everything we humans do or say. We push and pull the beat when expressing ourselves but we always return to that ruling rhythm of the heart. When we play music, we can create tension and release by manipulating the beat of the song. Not so much a blatant speeding or slowing of the rhythm, but something much more subtle such as choosing to leave out a note or a chord, to “play the rests” as it is often said. No, I don’t mean that if you only play half of the chords or notes in a piece of music that you instantly become good. That isn’t the point at all. They are there for a reason and you need to understand that reason when you play the song. The words and music, the chords and harmony, are there to create a framework for communicating an idea, expressing a feeling, or telling a story. Just as the words on a page are static and only become alive in our minds when we read them; so, too, are the songs we choose only static words and symbols until we give them life when we play them.

For a moment, think of the sound of a dial tone on a landline phone. Continuous, monotonous, lacking in spaces and dynamics, and as boring as anything can be. Is that what we want our playing to sound like? Probably not, but we can approach the dullness of the dial tone if we neglect the power of the spaces. When we talk on the phone it’s usually because we need to have a conversation with someone. When we play our instruments we are having a musical conversation with other musicians and the audience. And just as when we are talking with someone, we don’t all “talk” at the same time. With words, we take turns speaking. With music, the beauty is that we can support the person who is speaking and enhance their message by what we play. Or don’t play. It’s confusing and subtle but it makes all the difference whether we are musical orators or musical dial tones. The best compliment I’ve ever received as a musician was when someone came up to me after a set and said, “I just love your solos. It’s like you are speaking to me through your guitar.” Exactly! That is what I’m trying to do every time I play. “Conversational” is a good description of my playing when everything is working. When I’m comping, I’m conversing with the musicians I’m playing with. When I’m soloing, I’m conversing with the audience. If I just play a bunch of notes, I’m not really saying anything. Like a speaker speaking random words, I’m just making noise. I have to be sure I’m making sense when I play. You could call it playing with intent. You could call it playing the rests. Joni Mitchell once said to Larry Carlton, “I like the way you edit your playing.” It’s been referred to as “taste” or “choosing the right note” but no matter how you describe it, it always returns to the silence to define the sound.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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